Au revoir CSU, bonjour France: One student’s study abroad experience

Cleveland State University student Kierstan Conway visited France to study abroad and experience theatre, culture, and more

CSU Student Kierstan Conway visits the Louvre. Photo courtesy of Kierstan Conway

Kierstan Conway always had a passion for the rich French language. Taking French classes in middle and high school was one thing, but it was attending CSU where she really expanded her skills. 

Currently, a junior majoring in theater and French with a minor in anthropology, she spent this last fall semester apart from the rest of the campus community as the only CSU student to study abroad by visiting France.

CSU offers the opportunity for students to study abroad in a variety of countries. Over 54 countries, including France, Kenya, Mexico, and Japan, host affiliated programs, and studying abroad allows someone to enhance their strengths and abilities while conquering new challenges, expanding their global perspective, and building relationships. 

“I always planned on studying abroad,” said Conway. “Immediately, my first semester at Cleveland State, I went to the Study Abroad Center to ask some questions. Since I’m a Theater major too, I was looking for any French study abroad programs that had a theater course, and there was only one.”

Conway studied in Nantes, France, the country’s fifth-largest city. Although smaller than Chicago, Conway would say Nantes was “In between Cleveland and Chicago” in its energy.

“There was so much more color. Going into the city, there were not many cars and I would do a lot of walking. I would wake up for my 8:30 am classes to walk to the bus stop and it would be so peaceful with how quiet it was.”

Conway lived with a host family that had kids ranging from ages 3 to 8. The parents spoke French, English, and Dutch, allowing her to immerse herself in the daily lives of the French, following their lead in order to remain polite in the new culture.

She noted that because of her anxiety, she would wait to eat to see how her host family ate, just so she could mimic them, something her host family would catch on to and think it was silly.

Education was another area that showed cultural differences between France and the United States.

“The students were not as fixated on grades, and not fixated on having perfect grades,” she said. “I was talking to one of my French friends who described that a 14 out of 20 is something they haven’t had in a while, as the professors are very strict. A lot of the education is a skill-based thing, as opposed to being expected to knowing everything and doing well on a test.”

Touring outside of Versailles. Photo courtesy of Kierstan Conway

A fundamental and astonishing difference between the educational systems is that in France, much of the arts and schooling are publicly funded. For example, when asked about the cost of textbooks, Conway’s friends said “About 25 euros a semester, nothing more.” In USD, this is around $28.62, whereas Conway’s theatre books can cost up to hundreds of dollars.

Conway’s favorite course was her theatre class. The fundamentals remained the same, such as the common Stanislavski technique, but the French classroom provided a unique experience, in part because of the language difference.

Conway explained she gained a knowledge of how to convey meaning without using words. “I needed to really understand what I’m saying and take a step back,” said Conway, referring to her scripts being completely in French.

“The other students that are Americans are also going to have trouble understanding this, so I needed to double make sure everything I do is understood by the audience and by me,” she continued.

Being taught in another language also helped her understand how difficult it is to perform in a language outside of her native tongue. “It gave me so much more respect, it was a new way of conveying things. If you learn acting in one language and another, the practices are the same, but the whole idea is different. It was really fascinating, and I enjoyed that.”

Conway and other American students in her theater class after their performance with their director (right, with the parka). Photo courtesy of Kierstan Conway

Not only can traveling alone internationally for the first time be overwhelming, but having a worldwide pandemic affected the experience greatly. Conway explained that, compared to the United States, the rules regarding COVID-19 were much stricter.

“You have to have proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test in the last 72 hours. After submitting that info, the government then would give you a QR code and you will use that QR code to get into restaurants, movie theaters, or anywhere else you may take off your mask. It was kind of an incentive to get vaccinated or to be very vigilant,” Conway shared.

While we view French culture through an American lens, the trip also taught Conway how American culture is viewed through a French lens. The common stereotype of French people being rude was actually reversed, as they view many American customs as rude.

“Our rules of politeness and etiquette are different, so they will perceive it as rude. In America, if we have a friend wearing an ugly outfit, we will tell them, ‘You look really cute today,’ whereas in France they are more frank and have more bluntness.”

“We both have these preconceived notions that the other is rude and the real cause of the rudeness is a refusal to respect the culture and respect practices of other people. It’s just a level of miscommunication,” Conway added.

As beautiful of a country as France is, Conway still had some cloudy days. She experienced homesickness, running late, trying to navigate the city, getting food poisoning, and unfortunately, being pickpocketed.

“I would be homesick a lot and especially missed school a lot. I loved my professors at CSU and I had a relationship with them. They knew my strengths and weaknesses, how to push me and they know things I have done. That was another difference I noticed about France, there was more distance between professors and students emotionally,” Conway shared.

However, she didn’t let those days stop her from enjoying the rare opportunity to learn in another country. She certainly grew a lot, not only as a student but as a person.

When asked whether she would travel again, Conway immediately said yes.

“It was more difficult, I think, due to COVID to get things sorted, but CSU, specifically Julie Good from the Study Abroad Program, would check in on me and was very warm and inviting. I’m probably planning on going to London, COVID permitting, and, if I can get my scholarships, to study some Shakespeare with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts for a month this summer.”

To those interested in studying abroad or just thinking about it, Conway had some last words of advice:

“There is so much of the world to explore and I’m lucky to have had this opportunity. But if you have the opportunity, you have the entire world at your fingertips!”

“I just have so much more respect for anyone living with a language that is not their native language, because I don’t think I could do that long term,” she said. “We all live on the same planet, and we all do similar things, but the way we see the world is different, and I just think that’s really cool, and being in France really helped me understand that.”

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